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By Dorie Cox
Three years ago a new, unlimited captains license was introduced. But in all that time only four people have earned it.
Capt. Dale Smith and Capt. Rafael Cervantes Mataix are two that have met the requirements for the Master Unlimited tonnage Certificate of Competency (CoC) (yachts) license from the Republic of Marshall Islands. Capt. Smith received his CoC in March and Capt. Cervantes Mataix is in final stages of paperwork.
“This program is almost akin to a doctorate in maritime studies,” said Capt. John K. Hafner, vice president of seafarers’ manning and training with IRI/The Marshall Islands Registry. “The idea from the beginning was that this would be an elite level license, the absolute top in the yachting world.”
There are 14 STCW-mandated prerequisite courses, six exams and three simulator assessments to ensure that the candidates have the practical skills required. Capt. Hafner worked with Amy Morley-Beavers, former vice president of regulatory compliance and academic affairs of Maritime Professional Training (MPT), to create the course.
“The program was put together by unlimited masters and is not really a course at all,” Capt. Hafner said. “Before you get to the desk to take an exam, you have undergone hundreds of hours of mandated STCW training and optimally have three to six months of intense studying under your belt.”
Candidates considering this program, referred to as the Capstone Course, need to be fully prepared upon arrival, Capt. Hafner said.
“This course of exams is identical to that which our commercial unlimited masters must take, except we’ve omitted the marine cargo portion,” Capt. Hafner said.
Since finishing, it has been a challenge to relax again, Capt. Smith said. His schedule is slower since finishing about 11 months of classes and studies and waking up in the morning with facts spinning in his head.
“I think there are 23 formula for advance stability,” Capt. Smith said. “I spent days writing them out again and again and again.”
The last yacht Capt. Smith worked on was Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) compliant, an alternative to navigating with paper nautical charts.
“I haven’t looked at a paper chart in two years,” Capt. Smith said. He had to recall how to do the work with parallel rules, dividers and calculators.”
He is used to being organized with work on such yachts as the 154-foot Feadship M/Y Charisma, the 148-foot Sterling M/Y Triumphant Lady, and the 108-foot Euroship M/Y Fearless, but he tapped his son at university to help set up a schedule and keep on track.
“Each day I was up at 5 a.m. to study, then to class,” Capt. Smith said. “In the evening I would have a dinner about 7, then study until 10 or 11.”
He contemplated undertaking the process while working on a yacht.
“But running a boat, dealing with crew, handling the shipyard and studying?” Capt. Smith said. “My hat’s off to anyone who can.”
Capt. Cervantes Mataix felt the same, but had to do much of his studying and course work during his yacht job anyway. He was out of practice. Since receiving his 3,000-ton license in 2001, he had taken only short refresher courses.
“That was very, very challenging; it’s much better to do it when you’re not working,” said Capt. Cervantes Mataix, current captain of the 236-foot CRN M/Y Azecta. He previously worked on the 164-foot Westport M/Y Xilonen V, the 138-foot Christensen M/Y Xilonen, the 182-foot Oceanco M/Y Queen Mavia and the 135-foot Feadship M/Y Odyssey.
“We’re proud of him,” said his wife, Capt. Vicki Melhuish Cervantes. “It’s pretty cool he did this in his second language, pretty impressive.”
Even with the difficulty level, Capt. Cervantes Mataix enjoyed several courses.
“Stability was pretty comprehensive, that and the three-week celestial course,” he said. “It was fantastic, very complicated but good. The whole week of advanced ship handling and maneuvering [on the simulator] was just fun. It was great to work with much bigger ships with smaller engines and anchors.”
But the stress of testing on a simulator is just like navigating a real vessel.
“You have that tingling sense that something may go wrong,” Capt. Cervantes Mataix said. “You take it as seriously as when you’re handling a real boat.”
The Republic of Marshall Islands registry has had lots of inquiries about the license.
“There are not many skippers that are qualified for this program,” Capt. Hafner said. “You need to have a lot of STCW-mandated advanced training and years of sea time on very large yachts.”
Lisa Morley, director of sales and marketing for MPT and sister of Amy, said there are students in the process of earning the license now, and several are trying to fit it into their schedules.
“We hear it is a lot more difficult than they anticipated it being,” Morley said. “The time and dedication are extensive.”
Another benefit for captains is that the Cayman Islands Ship Registry recognizes and endorses the license.
“As of last year, anyone who attains this CoC can go straight to the CISR and have it endorsed,” Capt. Hafner said.
Previously, Capt. Smith was familiar with written exams from the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard courses.
“This process is very different than the MCA format that yachties are familiar with,” Capt. Smith said. “It’s a higher, more advanced level; I had never seen a standard Scantron test card.
“You know within 10 minutes if you passed,” he said. “In one regard, this is worse than oral exams because with those you can often talk yourself out of a hole. This is a machine and it’s just right or wrong. There is nothing to your working out if you have trouble toward the end of figuring out a question.”
And there is a reason for the challenges.
“The bar has been set high,” Capt. Hafner said. “Those who get over it are considered by the RMI Maritime Administrator to be the top yacht masters in the industry.”
And all of that knowledge and experience has been recognized in both of these two captains.
“When we do award this CoC, we are 100 percent confident in the candidate’s ability,” Capt. Hafner said. “Dale is typical of the handful of candidates that have successfully passed the program thus far. He is a very experienced master who, through hard academic work and determination, has pushed himself to the next level.”
“I did this to set myself apart,” Capt. Smith said. “It seems that everyone has their 3,000-ton today, and I already have my Y2.”
He wants to stand out as he looks for his next command. Most recently, Capt. Smith worked on M/Y Sovereign, a 40m Westport, for eight years.
“For me it’s more of personal thing,” Capt. Cervantes Mataix said. “I have been doing the captain thing for 17 years, but if there is one more step … you never know. I love the boat I am on and am not leaving, but you never know when the owner might buy a bigger one.
“Plus, it is good for insurance,” he said. “But predominantly it is to brush up and for personal gratification.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.